Major battle erupts in heart of Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. and Iraqi troops battled Sunni insurgents hiding in high-rise buildings on Haifa Street in the heart of Baghdad on Wednesday, with snipers on roofs taking aim at gunmen in open windows as Apache attack helicopters hovered overhead.

Iraq said 30 militants were killed and 27 captured.

New details also emerged about the downing of a private U.S. security company helicopter Tuesday, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying four of five Americans who died in the incident were shot execution-style. Violence was unrelenting in Iraq on Wednesday, with at least 69 people killed or found dead, including 33 tortured bodies found in separate locations in Baghdad.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the latest joint raid was aimed at clearing the Haifa Street area of "terrorists and outlaws" targeting residents. .

At 5 a.m. Wednesday, Iraqi army and U.S. troops moved into the Sunni stronghold to launch targeted raids in a third bid this month to clear the neighborhood of militants.The U.S.-Iraqi force faced fierce resistance from insurgents using hand-grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms from the high-rises, the American military said. The explosions were so loud they could be heard across the capital.

Helicopter crash

The aircraft, belonging to the Blackwater USA security company, went down as it flew over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood while a gunfight was raging.

A senior Iraqi military official said a machine gunner downed the helicopter and four of the men were shot execution-style on the ground, but a U.S. military official in Washington, D.C., said there were no indications the aircraft had been shot out of the sky. Three Sunni insurgent groups claimed responsibility for the crash, with one posting on its Web site the ID cards of one of the Americans. Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday to withdraw British soldiers from Iraq by October, then dodged a debate in Parliament in which there was almost unanimous condemnation for the war and little optimism for a U.S. plan to boost troop presence in Baghdad.